It’s a bit mesmerizing trying to imagine what our hunter-gatherer ancestors were eating thousands or tens of thousands years ago, and then attempting to try to eat that same diet. Yet, there is such a diet called the “Paleo Diet,” which mimics the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors. Advocators argue that the Paleo Diet helps us to optimize our health, minimize the risk of chronic diseases, and lose weight.
Just to be sure, they are not talking about the kind of food we expect to see on the “Flintstones” – mammoth meat on the bone, or acorns. The Paleo Diet is a well-strategized approach to eating that encourages you to choose the right food, based on the capacity of your digestive system.
But what’s the point of going all the way back to the Stone Age? Why can’t it be something like the Bronze Age, the Middle Age, or many be just 100 years ago? Well, even though I am not a nutritional specialist, I have a very simple, straightforward insight to this question.
Homo sapiens first appeared on the African continent about 200,000 years ago. And about 60,000 years ago some of them left their homeland to venture out to the wide world. By 8~3,000 BC, civilizations started to appear in different parts of the world, by taking advantage of the discovery of staple crops such as wheat or rice, and domesticated animals. Agriculture changed humans’ lives completely with a stable supply of carbohydrates and proteins. It gave societies an ever-growing excess energy that could be spent on activities not directly related to collecting food. Ever since, civilizations have continued to grow and expand in different parts of the world – and do so even to this day.
In Homo sapiens’ 200,000 year history, they were hunter-gatherers, for about 190,000 years. That’s about 95% of the entire time. Then, we became an agricultural society, which makes up about the remaining 5% of the time. Wheat and barley nurtured civilizations on Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt, and then Europe. Rice nurtured China and the surrounding Asian regions. Cattle, pigs and chickens became an important source of protein, whereas many coastal regions maintained a seafood-oriented diet.
Stable sources of carbs and proteins, and amazing improvements in production efficiency helped the world’s population to grow exponentially, compared to the Stone Age.
The effect of agriculture on population growth is nothing but tremendous: the spike, after the 1 A.C., is almost surreal, as you see in the graph above. If this is what agriculture brought to us, then the agricultural diet must be a winner, not the Paleo diet.
So why bother going back to the Paleolithic Age?
It has to do with our body.
Quite simply, our body is not able to evolve as fast as our technology does.
And the technological evolution in our food system was just as outrageous. First occurred the miraculous discovery of major crops such as wheat and rice (which was initially an accidental mutation of a species), and the mastery of taming wild animals to make them cattle. That was about 10,000 – 5,000 years ago. A number of staple crops continued growing: we have been eating potatoes, cassavas and corn in additions to wheat, barley and rice, for thousands of years now. We also increased the use of domesticated animals such as pigs and chickens.
And then, in the 15th century, another miracle happened: Europeans discovered “refined sugar.” They started large-scale sugar sugar cane plantations on the Caribbean islands, which resulted in a drastic increase in sugar consumption, worldwide. Until then, humans have never had such an explosively concentrated source of sucrose or fructose.
And finally, in the 1950s, humans started “processing” food at an extensive scale, using artificial ingredients and chemicals.
While every discovery or technological advancement – large-scale production of crops and cattle, sugar and food processing – seemed to help our society tremendously, in terms of total calories available and the accessibility to everyone, we have never really asked this question: is our body ready? Is our digestive system ready to accept/process these new types of food?
It turns out that the answer has been NO, in many cases. The result is that we are now seeing the repercussion of not asking that question. The evidence comes in the form of various syndromes and sicknesses: food allergies, obesity, diabetes, chronic diseases, reduced metabolic syndromes, fatigue, bowel movement problems, loss of concentration, various kinds of addictions, so on and so forth.
Since we all live surrounded by advancing technology, it’s easy to forget that our body is analogue and does not update its version automatically and frequently, as technology does. Quite the contrary, our body is pretty oblivious to technological advancement – even when our brain is obsessed with it. It has its own schedule for evolution, which can easily take thousands or tens of thousands of years for a minor change.
Just remember your old computer, may be with Windows 5, sitting in your garage for 10 years. You know that it won’t load Photoshop or Minecraft. It won’t work simply because it wasn’t designed to process those large applications, period. You know that your computer will freeze, if you try to force it. There is nothing you can do to make it work.
The same thing can happen to your body, if we try to force it to digest the foods it doesn’t know how to process. If your body is not designed to process gluten, then you are allergic to glutenous types of flour. Maybe your digestive system hasn’t updated the list of “editable food” to include these flours, because they have only been around for about 10,000 years.
By the same token, our body is not designed to face the flush of refined sugar, which has been around for only about 500 years, compared to our entire history of 200,000 years. It is such a pure form of sucrose and fructose, it’s almost like a speeding car ignoring traffic lights. It travels through your digestive system so fast that by the time your brain catches up with what’s going on, your body has already digested too much sugar. And any excess is stored as fat, as we all know.
And even more daunting is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a high concentration of fructose, as the name suggests. Since fructose tastes powerfully sweet, HFCS is made primarily to bombard/pamper your brain with the pleasure from intense sweetness. HFCS has only been around for several decades. While there is so much debate going on whether HFCS is worse than sugar or not, the excess sweetness continues to trick your digestive system anyway. It could just be overwhelmed, or confused, it gets numb, and starts sending the wrong signals to your brain: eat more.
Our meals are dominated by the food that does not care whether or not it’s friendly, or offensive to our digestive system. A lot of foods simply focus only on confusing our brain and taste buds, and make us feel obliged to “eat more,” even when it’s not needed. And we are paying the price in the form of deteriorated health.
What the Paleo Diet reminds us is that humans have been around for 200,000 years, we have been on the agricultural diet for only less than 5 percent of the entire time. Refined sugar is very new, and processed food and chemical additives are dangerously new to our digestive system. We simply don’t have the entire picture of how these new foods impact our body.
But if your body is already feeling like there is something wrong, or if you cannot stop eating and continue to get heavier and heavier, why wait? It’s a sign that your digestive system is seriously stressed. It’s sending the wrong signals to your brain. If you want to take good care of your gut, review what you are eating and just find out how “new” and “foreign” these foods are to your body. Even if you don’t decide to try a full-fledged Paleo Diet, there’s a lot of things you can do.
Just listen to your body, to begin your quest to regain a better body condition.